“Just because you’re faster than your mom, that doesn’t mean you’re fast.”
Somewhere along the way in high school, a fellow runner made that joke, and it has stuck with me ever since (sorry, Mom – no offense intended!). It humorously points to a error in judgment that we all are tempted to commit at one point or another: when attempting to demonstrate something about ourselves (that we’re faster or smarter, or that we’ve made a better argument, or built a bigger barn, or whatever), it is far to easy to pick a point of comparison that makes us look good every time.
Want to feel better about your artistic skills? Compare yourself to your 3-year old. Want to feel better about your sanctification? “At least I haven’t done what that person has done.” Want to get a self-esteem boost about your waning athletic abilities? Challenge your 60-yr old mother to a footrace.
These are obviously humorous examples (well, except the second one, which we’re all guilty of at times), but the sad thing is that this kind of thinking is a huge temptation when it comes to discussions about religious matters. Christians, atheists, and everyone in between are tempted constantly to commit what I want to call the “Bill Maher fallacy.”
Pick on someone your own size
Today I was engaging in an online conversation with the blogger at at Finding Doubt (who had linked to one of my prior posts), and I gently and, hopefully, irenically encouraged him to avoid this fallacy. Let me explain a bit more what I mean by this.
Bill Maher is, of course, a comedian / critic / talking head who hosts a show on HBO, publishes books, and in general makes it his practice to polemicize (humorously, or so he tries) everyone who disagrees in the slightest with his fundamentally narcissistic worldview (that he would call liberalism or progressivism). Fine: whatever pays the bills.
The real issue at hand is how Maher’s modus operandi, as an extreme example, shines light on the kind of bad argumentation that is tempting to us all. When it comes to whatever social, political, or economic issue has ticked him off most recently, Maher at least “tries” to do his homework (though he is regularly criticized for engaging in pseudoscience, bad logic, or abuse of statistics by experts across all the fields he attacks). However, when it comes to the realm of religion, he tends to go off the methodological rails completely.
Maher’s approach is simple: to attack Christianity (or Islam, for that matter), he locates the weakest, most extreme, most fundamentalist, most ignorant, and least balanced exemplars of whatever he wants to oppose, and he attack them viciously. The examples he uses to represent “all Christians” are, thus, drawn from snake-handling churches, truck stops, prosperity preachers, and the like.
It all makes for good sport, and there’s a sense in which we all need to be more self-critical about our “extended family” in the visible church. But ultimately his maneuver runs utterly counter to the basic tenets of the post-Enlightenment skeptical rationalism he wants to put in the place of any religious perspective. He is attempting to enthrone the god of reason and logic by picking on the most unreasonable and illogical and (extreme) minority positions, while attempting to argue they are representative. In other words, he is egregiously committing the error of selection bias by refusing to deal with a more balanced cross-section of Christians (or Muslims, or Jews) he wants to discredit. Were he to throw N. T. Wright, Alistair McGrath, James D. G. Dunn, Ben Witherington, Vern Poythress, D. A. Carson, or any of a host of respected, well-educated, balanced, logical, and reasonable Christians into the mix, he would not come away looking so much like a funnier and more clever Richard Dawkins.
In other words, the “Bill Maher fallacy” is simply this: deliberately choosing only to deal with the opposing viewpoints that are easy to disprove and using them as the foil for your own arguments. That is: playing the bully who picks on the little kids on the playground, but who always conveniently disappears when the football players and wrestlers come on the scene.
But the real issue is not that Maher does this, but that we Christians do it too.
The best players want to play against the strongest opponents
All Christians, from laymen to ministers to scholars, are engaged in some level of thought and argumentation about the faith; such is the call of 1 Pet 3:15 to be ready at all times to give an apologia (reasoned defense) of our faith. We all want to think through the implications of our belief system and figure out why exactly we believe X as a Christian instead of Y, hoping to attain some level of epistemic confidence that the Christian worldview is coherent, well-reasoned, faithful, and, mainly, true. This invariably draws any Christian into argumentation (formal or informal) about various teachings of the Bible.
It is right at this point that the Bill Maher fallacy starts looking pretty attractive. Instead of going after the best possible opposing points of view to whatever Christian proposition we want to defend, we look for the most mutilated, biased, underdetermined, or problematic view (that maybe only a handful of people hold), and we attack that view in order to demonstrate that Christianity is better.
By being selective in what we choose to argue against, we come out looking good every time. There are three problems with this approach:
- It is intellectually dishonest. We should not present our view as the “best” if we haven’t dealt with a fair and balanced spectrum of competing perspectives. Michael Jordan would not be the GOAT if he had only beaten me, my 7th grade basketball coach, and anyone on this year’s Utah Jazz. He had to play Magic, Larry, Charles, Clyde, and all the rest.
- It is dishonoring to Christ. If we believe the biblical worldview is what it claims to be, then there no counterargument out there will ever prevail. Yes, some may be very hard to deal with, but to run away from challenging perspectives out of fear that we may lose the argument is emphatically a failure to rest in who God says he is.
- It is ineffective. This is third for a reason, but it is still important. The Bill Maher fallacy is easy to spot when anyone has done their homework, and it can produce precisely the opposite effect than what you intended. You had hoped to look good by demolishing some (weak) counterarguments, but instead you look like the one who has the biased and underdetermined view.
Connecting to the pew
I hope this call to avoid the Bill Maher fallacy may be encouraging to a variety of folks who are defending various aspects of Christianity. To seminary students: resist the temptation to engage with only one (or two) tired, outdated viewpoints, bypassing the truly respectable ones, en route to presenting your paper’s thesis (and it must have a thesis!). To pastors: when you want to preach against secularism and for the gospel of Christ (which we all should), don’t simply poke fun at the obviously ridiculous examples of secularism (pop stars, extreme left-wing politicians, etc.). Be sure to engage with – read for yourself! – the thoughtful and perspicacious folks with whom you disagree, because those guys are what the skeptics in your congregation or community are really dealing with. To scholars: avoid the temptation hide overly simplified (caricatured?) summaries of opposing viewpoints in the footnotes, just so you can get on to your own argument. Deal with your best opponents in such a way that, at a minimum, they would agree that you have fairly represented them. To laypersons: avoid railing against “those liberals” if you haven’t done your homework. Everyone needs to do their homework, not just those in vocational ministry. We all present a common witness, and one doesn’t have to have a seminary degree (some might argue that the reverse is true!) to be use good logic and argumentation in providing an “apologia” for the hope we have.
Just because you can take out the injured baby wildebeest that has been separated from the herd, that doesn’t mean you’re a good hunter.
Racing your mom may make you think you look fast – but it doesn’t actually mean you’re fast.
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